Children at Play: Clinical and Developmental Approaches to Meaning and Representation

Children at Play: Clinical and Developmental Approaches to Meaning and Representation

Children at Play: Clinical and Developmental Approaches to Meaning and Representation

Children at Play: Clinical and Developmental Approaches to Meaning and Representation


As they play, children do more than imagine--they also invent life-long approaches to thinking, feeling, and relating to other people. For nearly a century, clinical psychologists have been concerned with the content and interpersonal meaning of play. More recently, developmental psychologists have concentrated on the links between the emergence of symbolic play and evolving thought and language. At last, this volume bridges the gap between the two disciplines by defining their common interests and by developing areas of interface and interrelatedness. The editors have brought together original chapters by distinguished psychoanalysts, clinical psychologists, social workers, and developmental psychologists who shed light on topics outside the traditional confines of their respective domains. Thus the book features clinicians exploring subjects such as play representation, narrative, metaphor, and symbolization, and developmentalists examining questions regarding affect, social development, conflict, and psychopathology. Taken together, the contributors offer a rich, integrative view of the many dimensions of early play as it occurs among peers, between parent and child, and in the context of therapy.


One of the most famous "studies" of play is Freud's observation of a toddler:

Without the intention of making a comprehensive study of these phenomena, I availed myself of an opportunity which offered of elucidating the first game invented by himself of a boy of eighteen months old. . . .

The child was in no respect forward in his intellectual development . . . but he made himself understood by his parents and the maidservant, and had a good reputation for behaving "properly." . . . [A]bove all he never cried when his mother went out and left him for hours together, although the tie to his mother was a very close one: she had not only nourished him herself, but had cared for him and brought him up without any outside help. Occasionally, however, this well-behaved child evinced the troublesome habit of flinging into the corner of the room or under the bed all the little things he could lay his hands on, so that to gather up his toys was often no light task. He accompanied this by an expression of interest and gratification, emitting a loud, long-drawn-out "O-o-o-o-o-oh" which in the judgment of the mother (one that coincided with my own) was not an interjection but meant "go away" [fort]. I saw at last that this was a game, and that the child used all his toys only to play "being gone" [fortsein] with them. One day I made an observation that confirmed my view. The child had a wooden reel with a piece of string wound round it. It never occurred to him, for example, to drag this after him on the floor and so play horse and cart with it, but he kept throwing it with considerable skill, held by the string, over the side of his little draped cot, so that the reel disappeared into it, then said his significant "O-o-o-oh" and drew the reel by the string out of the cot again, greeting its reappearance with a joyful "Da" [there]. This was therefore the complete game, disappearance and return, the first act being the only one generally observed by onlookers, and the one untiringly repeated by the child as a game for its own sake, although the greater pleasure unquestionably belonged to the second act. . . . This interpretation was fully established by a further observation. One day when the mother had been out for some hours she was greeted on her return by the information "Baby o-o-o-oh" which at first remained unintelligible. It soon proved that during his long lonely hours he had found a method of bringing about his own disappearance. He had discovered his reflection in the long mirror which nearly reached to the ground and had then crouched down in front of it, so that the reflection was "fort."

Quoted in E. Erikson (1950). Childhood and Society. New York: Norton, p. 215.

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